A Game From Scratch

Hello Friends-

I stayed after school yesterday and ended up in the upper playground playing whiffle ball with the students. I worried that some of the children would be unable to hit the ball, even with the big red fat bat they were using. I didn’t want them to feel bad if they had not quite mastered the art of whacking a flying plastic sphere out of the air, but I also knew that the other players would quickly get bored if I spent too much time focused on one batter. How could we make this game of baseball work??

The dilemma proved pretty easy to solve… I just asked the kids what to do.

There was a flurry of conversation as each of the children offered their varying knowledge about the rules of baseball. Some thought you had three pitches to swing at, others thought you swung until you hit the ball. Some realized that a “bad” pitch missed was different than a “good” pitch missed. Some even knew what a strike was. It felt pretty immaterial what the actual rules were at that moment, it just felt important for us to agree on our own rules.

What materialized was a mishmash of activity involving the tools and activity of baseball, with little of the formal structure associated with the game. Kids ran around the bases seemingly at random, laughing as they were chased by someone clutching the ball. Missed pitches were clubbed from the ground or kicked into play. It was a scene familiar to anyone who has watched young kids on a playground create a game from scratch.

The striking aspect of it to me was how little competition was involved both in the creation of the rules and in the final game itself. The kids worked together in creating a game that totally sidestepped the issues of winning and losing. Batters who could not hit the ball were sent scurrying along the base paths anyways. It was not seen as a failure on their part, but rather just a part of the game that was fun to try your best at. It brought to mind a phrase we often use at Randolph: “This is not a winning kind of race!”

There are all sorts of theories out there about the role of competition in the social-emotional development of children (I find both Alfie Kohn and Vivian Paley’s ideas on the topic compelling). In the end, however, all I know is that somehow a motley group of kids and their tag-along adult figured out an exciting and demanding way to spend the afternoon with a bat, a ball, and a few bases made of stone.

Be well,

Ben


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